Chicago

Former Chicago journalism professor’s new documentary focuses on brother’s mysterious death

EVANSTON, Ill. — It’s been four years since Cheryl Owsley Jackson walked through Northwestern University’s campus. The former reporter taught at Medill’s School of Journalism. It was before then, in 2013, when she began to tell the most personal and tragic story she’d ever know.

She has dug to get to the truth she feels has been buried, even nine years later.

“Cary was my only sibling, I’m nobody’s sister now,” Jackson said.

Jackson had finished her classes for the week in April 2013 when she got a call that changed her life. In her hometown of Columbus, Indiana, her younger brother Cary Owsley, 49, was dead of a gunshot wound. His estranged wife, Lisa Owsley made the 911 call.

In this undated photo, Cheryl Owsley Jackson is pictured with her brother Cary. (Photo: Submitted)

The coroner immediately ruled the truck driver’s death a suicide. That decision – with no immediate autopsy and no note – touched off a legal and social justice battle that’s raged on for nearly a decade.

“I don’t believe it, I believe there’s so much evidence that proves my brother didn’t kill himself,” Jackson said. “Nobody works this hard to cover up a suicide.”

It is now the subject of a docuseries that chronicles the missteps of investigators in the case and the fight to overturn the findings.

The Owsley family hired forensic expert Bill Smock, the same expert who was more recently on the George Floyd legal team in Minneapolis. Serious problems he identified suggest a scene that was staged, that Owsley was killed by someone else.

(A) diagram shows the entrance wound on the front of the chest, the exit wound on the back, that says the bullet was in a downward trajectory,” Smock said.

The problem with that, Smock said, is the bullet hole in the wall is 12 inches above the chair in which Owsley was supposed to have been sitting.

“It wasn’t just me, there were experts besides me that said this could not have happened,” Jackson said.

According to Jackson, the family strife had a lot to do with the friction over the Owsleys’ mixed-race marriage and her two children.

“Her adult sons hate Cary,” Jackson said. “They’re calling him the n-word. They’re threatening to kill him on social media. They hate their interracial relationship.”

Additionally, one of the sheriff’s deputies who showed up at the scene of the death — now-former Dep. DeWayne Janes — was once married to Lisa and the father of those same two sons. And the gun Jackson said he used once belonged to Janes.

“When you add the fact that the cop-dad is the first one on the crime scene, my brother died with his personal gun, he admits in the police report that he burned the chair my brother died in or witnessed it, took the bloody rug and put it in his car — he touched every piece of evidence,” Jackson said.

Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark Gorbett acknowledged mistakes in the handling of the investigation, at the time. There were suspensions, but he said those mistakes did not affect its outcome.

To this day, neither Owsley’s wife nor stepsons – or law enforcement would go on camera to explain.

The case has been in the federal courts. Through the Chicago law firm, Loevy and Loevy, the family argues that Owley’s civil rights were violated. The court is weighing his son Logan’s standing in the case.

One of their original attorneys is Trent McCain of Gary, Indiana.

“This case is to prove that as of April 7, 2013, there was a botched investigation and after that, there was a coverup,” McCain said.

The case has generated some attention, protests and interest. But for the family, still no justice.

It’s Jackson’s hope that the kind of attention from the likes of Netflix or Hulu will bring an end to her family’s fight.

Jackson had finished her classes for the week in April 2013 when she got a call that changed her life.

“This year I turned 60 and realized I spent my entire 50s fighting for justice for my brother,” she said. “And I’m prepared to do it until I die.”

And in a real way, could also shed light on a problem that goes well beyond Cary Owsley.

“We see all across this country, black men, unarmed black men being shot by police or cover-ups,” Jackson said. “When you ask why people should care, it can happen to them.”

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